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Enlightenment; A Great Cosmic Joke?


The grand chance of being alive is reason enough to take it seriously, or to take seriously our vital condition: we are to learn and to move on.

Life as it is should be enough of a reason to laugh. It is so absurd, it is so ridiculous.

It is so beautiful, it is so wonderful. It is all sorts of things together. It is a great cosmic joke.

 – Osho

Have you ever noticed that images Buddhas often appear with brief but unmistakable smiles? Many spiritual teachers, including the Dalai Lama, often laugh out loud and even infectiously? In Western culture, religion has taught us that such concepts as “salvation” and “eternal glory” need to be represented in the imagination as solemn, even frightening phenomena.

For better or worse, when we look to expand our spiritual horizons, we always end up returning to this same starting point: what we were after was always within us. But it’s the journey, the odyssey, a trip around the world constitutes grace of the voyage, a joke, illuminated.

We mentally represent enlightenment as a cartoonish state, one that is absent tension and carnality, with no earthly desires, and we do this without even thinking of a moment of life, fully lived. That is, without forgetting that we will die, we can participate in a flow of events without creating attachments or apprehensions. Life could be a series of enlightened moments.

In other words, we see enlightenment as the final link in a chain, rather than seeing enlightenment as life itself, and then ourselves moving into it with every moment. The condition of life is enlightenment, but when we take ourselves too seriously, not knowing to laugh at ourselves, we actually obscure life.

Ernest Hemingway once said:

Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.

The figure of the trickster, that grand jokester who appears in many mythologies, a crow who mocks the seriousness of the fox, the jester who speaks truths to Shakespeare’s King Lear, even smart comedians like Louis C.K. or George Carlin, are all there to tell us how we look when we take ourselves too seriously: we look ridiculous.

The “Le Mat” card in the Tarot of Marseilles, often called “The Fool” is unnumbered, unlike the rest of the 21 cards in the major arcana. At a card reading, one might interpret “Le Mat” as a liberation from mental or intellectual ties, or even from physical or emotional ties. It might be read as a burst of laughter that cuts through the pain of the world, or even as a fruitful return to an irrationality and solitude that stands in contrast to the electronic and mechanical socialization of our own day.

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh explained:

I laugh when I think how I once sought paradise as a realm outside of the world of birth. It is right in the world of birth and death that the miraculous truth is revealed. But this is not the laughter of someone who suddenly acquires a great fortune; neither is it the laughter of one who has won a victory. It is, rather, the laughter of one who; after having painfully searched for something for a long time, finds it one morning in the pocket of his coat. 

Clowns and madmen of all kinds remind us that life is a big joke, and that living life seriously does not mean taking life seriously. If we consider that we’re a species of ape that’s evolved over thousands of years from a genetic anomaly that allowed us to develop opposable thumbs, and then that the whole history of our culture has occurred on a huge stone that goes around and around around an incandescent star, we may get some perspective on our daily problems and try to face the fact of being alive from a more lucid perspective. From enlightenment, even.

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